Netball: Rising star learning

By Michael Burgess

Kayla Cullen. Photo / Getty Images
Kayla Cullen. Photo / Getty Images

Kayla Cullen is not exactly thrilled to be interviewed. Not only does she "never know what to say" but the 19-year-old Mystics prodigy is also a little self-conscious about new braces, put in to correct some teeth knocked out of place in a "play fight" with her older brother a few years ago.

Cullen's star is clearly on the rise and she will need to get used to media attention - as well as plenty of physical contact.

She has played all three matches for the Mystics this season, and will start her fourth today against the Vixens.

In December, she was part of the Fastnet Ferns team who took out the World Netball Series in England, and she made the New Zealand under-21 team as a 16-year-old schoolgirl in 2009.

"I'm getting used to the hype and everyone judging me and judging how I play," admits Cullen. "I didn't handle the pressure as well last year. It feels natural now, even though I have only played three games. I try to stay calm and try not to think about the crowd and people watching; I just play."

She has certainly come to the attention of the national selectors, already earmarked for a future in the black dress.

"She has all the potential to be a Silver Fern," says Netball New Zealand high performance manager Tracey Fear. "The key for her is to keep on progressing and tick all the boxes. Ultimately, it is up to Kayla and how committed she is."

Like most of today's new breed, Cullen is versatile. In the various national age-group teams she was a goal attack.

The Mystics have her at the defensive end as well as wing defence and wing attack, while Robyn Broughton used Cullen as a centre for the Fastnet Ferns.

"She is not precious about where she plays," says Mystics coach Debbie Fuller. "She has a range of skills so can switch but I see her as a very good attacking defender - in the mould of [fellow Mystic] Joline Henry."

Cullen says her favourite position is goal defence, where there is "more room to roam and hunt and move my feet".

"I feel quite restricted at wing defence - you are doing heaps of work but there is not much glory," she laughs. "You are basically hanging around the circle edge, trying to annoy the [opposing] wing attack. You don't feel like you are doing much but everybody says you are doing a good job."

If Cullen makes the step up to the full international team, it is likely to be in the midcourt. The Netball New Zealand brains trust see increased height at centre and wing defence as one of the trends.

Players like Temepara George (1.70m) and Laura Langman (1.73m) have dominated those positions but the prototype may shift in favour of those like the 1.85m Cullen.

Fuller compares Cullen's presence and style to that of a young Bernice Mene; someone who has had quite an impact on Cullen.

"I met Bernice Mene when I was nine," says Cullen. "I think that was what inspired me the most."

Mene came to Meadowbank Primary for a coaching session and Cullen was awestruck.

"I had a photo with her. I think I still have it," she smiles.

On court, Cullen has a certain languid style. Her coaches laud the athleticism and aerial ability of the ex-basketballer, noting her ability to read a game.

"She has an instinctive understanding of match situations," says Fuller, "and knows where to be at the right time."

For her part, Cullen is still adjusting to a demanding atmosphere at the Mystics.

"The process has been 70 per cent mental, 30 per cent physical," says Cullen. "The hardest part is learning how everything rolls with the older players. They expect a lot; they expect you to do everything they can do - even though you are just starting. It puts a lot of pressure on you and you need to push yourself that extra 110 per cent."

Getting used to the off-court discipline has been another part of the learning curve. Coach Fuller confirms the teen has been "laid back about timeliness", something the franchise is working on.

Says Cullen: "I am young and a little irresponsible. The girls always say to me that I am like them when they were young. I'm late all the time."

Her job carries a lot of responsibility, but she is still a typical teenager. She goes shopping "virtually every day", listens to popular Canadian rapper Drake and jokes that she will be melting chocolate to get her fix, now the dentist has ruled out her favourite confectionary.

After a promising start to her league career, the acid test starts today with the Vixens. Teams will begin to compile dossiers; opponents will know her favourite moves.

"As Lois Muir would say, Kayla needs to develop her bag of tricks," says Fear. "Then she can pick what to do against different opponents."

Fear lists commitment, self-responsibility, resilience and leadership as the key elements of a world-class Silver Fern.

"We can train the rest; we monitor those aspects closely in our young players. If they are not present, odds are they won't make it to the elite level."

- Herald on Sunday

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